Tue, October 26, 2021


At the U.S. Open, teenage upstarts oust third seeds Stefanos Tsitsipas, Naomi Osaka in succession

NEW YORK - Serving to wrap up a straight-sets victory, defending U.S. Open champion Naomi Osaka lost her form, then her composure, and never got it back Friday night against 18-year-old Leylah Fernandez of Canada.

The result was a stunning upset on Arthur Ashe Stadium, where Osaka has claimed two of her four Grand Slam titles, with Fernandez ousting the tournament's third seed, 5-7, 7-6 (7-2), 6-4. It was also the second upset authored by a teen on the main stadium court in the span of just a few hours, coming on the heels of Spain's Carlos Alcaraz, 18, knocking off men's No. 3 seed Stefanos Tsitsipas in a five-set thriller.

"I just wanted to put on a show for everybody here," Fernandez told the crowd during her post-match victory.

Osaka, 23, had collected her rackets and walked off court by that point, flashing a peace sign to the crowd.

The match - which was Osaka's second Grand Slam contest since she withdrew from the French Open on May 31 for mental-health reasons - showed an uncharacteristic side of the soft-spoken champion, whose on-court comportment has been impeccable, regardless of the pressure.

After failing to serve out the match in the second set, Osaka piled one error atop another in the tiebreaker that followed. As her game unraveled, so did Osaka's emotions.

In uncharacteristic fashion, she struck her racket frame on the court. After another error, she tossed her racket, then bashed it. The chair umpire chose not to issue a warning, which would have been expected under the rule book.

After Fernandez claimed the tiebreaker to force a third set, Osaka left the court for a permissible break. She returned a few minutes later with a towel over her head and shrouding most of her face. She apologized for her behavior to the chair umpire, according to ESPN's Mary Joe Fernandez, who was courtside.

Although she played better in the third set, Osaka failed to slow Fernandez's momentum or shake the teenager's belief.

Fernandez's heroics on Arthur Ashe Stadium followed those of another teen - Alcaraz, who topped third-seeded Tsitsipas in a five-set thriller in Friday's afternoon session.

At 18, the 55th-ranked Alcaraz became the youngest man to beat a top-three player at the U.S. Open since ATP rankings were first kept in 1973.

And he fell flat on his back, overcome with awe and relief, when his final shot - a forehand blast to an open court - sealed the tiebreaker that clinched the 6-3, 4-6, 7-6 (7-2), 0-6, 7-6 (7-5) victory.

"Without the crowd, I haven't the possibility to win the match," Alcaraz told the crowd, which fell deliriously in love with the young Spaniard over the course of a 4 hour, 7 minute physical contest. "Thank you to the crowd for pushing me up."

Alcaraz claimed the biggest victory of his young career not by catching the 23-year-old Tsitsipas on an off day. He won the match on merits - with courage, dazzling backhand winners, devilish drop shots and grit.

If some tennis fans see in Alcaraz the next Rafael Nadal, it is understandable.

But the label of "the next Nadal" is not something that is embraced or endorsed by Alcaraz's coach, former world No. 1 Juan Carlos Ferrero, who has said it is unnecessary baggage for the teen to shoulder.

Moreover, the right-handed Alcaraz plays his own brand of tennis - more attack-oriented than that of the left-handed Nadal, Spain's most famous athlete and currently tied with Roger Federer and Novak Djokovic for a men's record 20 Grand Slam titles.

Against the 6-foot-4 Tsitsipas, who boasts a variety of strokes and tactics, Alcaraz displayed even greater range and bolder tactics.

Alcaraz hugged the baseline during rallies, rather than lurked well behind it, to better dictate points. He blasted Tsitsipas's second serves with fury. He deftly disguised his drops shots. And time and again, he painted lines with backhand winners and blitzed cross-court passing shots to make Tsitsipas, fit and quick, look a step slow.

Alcaraz wasn't Tsitsipas's only foe.

From the start, the bellicose crowd was against him. And his own father, Apostolos, who is also his coach, did Tsitsipas no favors, either, drawing a warning from the chair umpire for improper coaching (via apparent hand signals) during the third-set tiebreaker.

The defeat represented a dramatic reversal of fortune for Tsitsipas, often spotlighted as the face of the sport's next generation.

But in recent months, Tsitsipas has drawn criticism from fellow players for taking extended breaks at critical junctures in his matches - leaving the court for overly long, yet permissible bathroom breaks. Three-time Grand Slam champion Andy Murray called it "rubbish" after Tsitsipas did exactly th

at during their first-round match on Monday.

On Wednesday, U.S. Open fans booed Tsitsipas when he took another long break during his second-round match against Adrian Mannarino. And they were in no mood for a reprise Friday - particular not against a teenager who was pouring his heart into every shot. So they booed when Tsitsipas called for the trainer early in the proceedings to evaluate his feet, then changed his socks and shoes.

Their animus gained steam as the match ground on. The crowed cheered Tsitsipas's faults and miss-hits and cheered each ball Alcaraz struck.

The partisanship was laid bare after the fourth set, when Tsitsipas, his clothes drenched in sweat, headed off court for a bathroom break. He was booed mercilessly. But when Alcaraz decided to take a break, too, he was cheered as he followed Tsitsipas off court.

Asked afterward how he interpreted the boos, Tsitsipas said: "Look, I'm not pretending that everyone loves me . . . My intentions are not to be loved by everyone."

Published : September 04, 2021